I asked Helen Thomas about Israel. Her answer revealed more than you think.
On the night of May 26, I drove down to Washington from New York with my son, Adam, and his friend Daniel. We arrived at 2:30 a.m. and crashed in a hotel. A few hours later, we woke up and coaxed each other to prepare for a day at the White House. The president was hosting a Jewish heritage celebration, and we'd been able to get media credentials to cover the event. We were exhausted, but thrilled.
The day began with security checks. Then to the press room. A glimpse of former president Bill Clinton scurrying by with Vice President Biden. A press conference in the East Room with President Obama. An impromptu interview with the White House's mashgiach, the supervisor of the kosher kitchen preparation. Adam and Daniel were documenting the events for their Jewish teen Web site, ShmoozePOINT.com. I was interviewing people about Israel for a feature on my Web site, RabbiLIVE.com.
I thought that if I could create videos of short anecdotes about Israel -- the food, archeology, history and personal experiences -- they might go viral on the Internet and be a nice promo campaign for the country. I had started the project just a few weeks before.
Even as a rabbi, I did not count on divine intervention.
We were on the White House front lawn when I told the teenagers that approaching us was the most famous reporter in the world -- Helen Thomas, a veteran who had covered presidents from Kennedy to Obama. We stopped her. I told Thomas that the young men were starting out in the press corps and hoped to be reporters. She kindly shared notes about journalism with us. "You'll always keep learning," she said. It was an honor.
Then I asked: "Any comments on Israel? We're asking everybody today." Like saying a password to enter a new, secret place. "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine," she replied, and "go home" to Poland and Germany. We were in.
The gentle give and take has now been broadcast, transcribed and thoroughly dissected. However, a strict transcription misses the accuracy of the audiovisual. Only in the director's cut, the video, are the nonwords, the sound, the noise, the true reaction. And that was my "oooh."
"What were you thinking when you said 'oooh,' rabbi?" asked Fox News, as did many of the other national and international media outlets that probed and jabbed for my innermost thoughts. Well, I was thinking "oooh." Oooh. Most heard it the first time. Certainly during the multitude of reruns, "oooh" became part of the song. It was a response by a rabbi to Thomas's comments, and it was from my soul.
I merely asked a question with a video camera to a columnist. She answered me with an opinion that was unacceptable not just to me but to former and current press secretaries, politicians, the president, her agent and a great many other people. Her freedom of speech was not stifled; on the contrary, it was respected.
She didn't say that the blockade was unjust, or that aid was not getting to Gaza, or that there was a massacre on the high seas, or that East Jerusalem is occupied, or that the settlements are immoral . . . and get out and go back to West Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Eilat. No. This was not the two-state solution. This was get the hell out and go back to the places of the final solution, Poland and Germany. The Jew has no connection with the land of Israel.
And why? Because, as Thomas went on to explain to me, "I'm from Arab descent." That's it? That's all you got? Do we all travel with only our parents' stereotypes to guide us, never going beyond them to get to a peaceful destination?
In the past weeks I have relived this moment over and over, on television and radio, in newspapers and blogs. I've listened to a constant stream of commentary. And my sharpest impression is this: Where before I saw a foggy anti-Israel, anti-Jewish link, it's now clear. This feeling is not about statehood. It's about an ingrown, organic hate. It's a sentiment that bears no connection to history, dates, passages or verses. Erase the facts, the dates and the lore. Erase the Jew. Incredibly, even the Nazis said to the Jews, "Go home to Palestine." But Thomas and a babbling stream in our world and country dictate to Jewish people to "go home to Poland and Germany." Yeah, I said "oooh."
My "oooh" was the sound of the shofar ram's horn calling a loud primal tikeya, the extended ancient whole note from my very core. My existence was being erased. Every room in every Holiday Inn in America has, next to the bed, in the drawer, a Bible, beside the yellow pages and the breakfast menu. Christianity believes in the Jewish ancestry. Islam believes in the prophets Moses and Jesus. Can we just rip away the history of Jews in Israel like a Band-Aid, one quick motion across the centuries? Oooh.
One may disagree on fences and rights of return. There have been handshakes, summits, accords, cease-fires, negotiations and boycotts. It's all been on the table, under the table or sometimes tabled. But the connection between the Jew and Israel is valid, historical, ancient, modern, spiritual and eternal. The relationship is beyond the state of Israel. It is a unique relationship of a religion to a land. The Jews are "bnai yisroel," the children of Israel. Even when they are away, they are connected. Even during exiles and diasporas, they are connected. Even during inquisitions, pogroms and a Holocaust, they are connected.
My grandmother used to kibitz, "Friends you choose; family you're stuck with." The Jew is stuck with Israel. There is no ungluing the connection. It is beyond the ambiguous term "chosen people"; they are "the people who have no choice." It is more than a religious belief; it is a value and a moral barometer of the Earth. History, truth, integrity and the foundation of our world are not negotiable.
"Tell them to get the hell out . . ."
We went back to the East Room for the Jewish event and then onto the South Lawn as Marine One carried away the first family for the Memorial Day weekend. We stopped in Maryland on the way home for some kosher shwarma. The New Jersey Turnpike looked the same, but we were already traveling on a road in a post-oooh world.
David F. Nesenoff is a rabbi in New York. His Web site is RabbiLIVE.com. He will discuss this article online Monday, June 21 at 11 a.m. Please submit questions before or during the discussion. From the archives: Jon Ward on Helen Thomas's role in the White House press corps and a look at other career-changing gaffes. (June 13).